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Legal luminaries defend Aamer Anwar

By Neil Mackay, 4 November 2007
Sunday Herald

THE MOST celebrated names in the English legal establishment have savaged the Scottish justice system for undermining human rights and freedom of speech through threats to prosecute the Scottish lawyer Aamer Anwar for contempt of court in the wake of a terror trial.

Anwar, a solicitor who specialises in controversial civil liberties cases and defending terror suspects, faces being charged with contempt this week following a statement he read on the steps of the high court in Edinburgh in September after the conviction of his client, Mohammed Atif Siddique.

After the jury found Siddique guilty of providing training material on bomb-making and spreading terrorist propaganda on websites, Anwar read a statement which said the 21-year-old from Alva was merely doing "what millions of young people do every day, looking for answers on the internet".

Anwar claimed the "verdict was a tragedy for justice and for freedom of speech", and added: "Young Muslims live in a climate of fear no different to that experienced by the Irish community in the last century." He also claimed that Siddique "did not receive a fair trial". His client was later jailed for eight years.

Lord Carloway, the Siddique trial judge, has told Anwar that he faced a possible contempt of court charge. If convicted, Anwar could face prison and be banned from practising law, in effect, ruining his career. The judge said that Anwar's comments were "simply a lie" and that the statement "impugned the verdict of the jury". A final decision on Anwar's fate will come this week.

In advance, however, an array of England's most powerful legal figures has lined up behind Anwar. It is standard practice in England for a solicitor to speak out on behalf of a convicted client after a verdict.

Gareth Peirce, famous for her defence of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, said the treatment of Anwar flew in the face of United Nations conventions which guarantee the independence of lawyers. The English solicitor, who was portrayed by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father, has also acted for MI5 operative David Shayler, Abu Qatada, the so-called al-Qaeda ambassador in Europe, Judith Ward, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, Mozzam Begg and other Guantanamo Bay detainees.

She described Anwar as a "lawyer of great courage and principle who has consistently spoken out about injustice". She added: "We should be grateful, in times of considerable fear for entire communities, that there are lawyers brave enough to speak out. The right to say the uncomfortable needs to be valued in a democracy."

Imran Khan, the London solicitor who acted for the family of Stephen Lawrence, said: "This man spoke out after the verdict so one has to question why this action has been taken, as what possible prejudice to any proceedings could have occurred.

"There should be no attempt to silence lawyers. If lawyers can't speak out then one of the bedrocks of justice - the right to highlight a miscarriage of justice - just goes. I could never anticipate such a thing happening in England. From across the border, this all seems bizarre. I hope common sense prevails."

Michael Mansfield also struck out at the Scottish system. Mansfield is one of the top five QCs in England. He said: "We need independent strong lawyers who will speak out," he said. "In all the cases where I have worked with Imran and Gareth it was vital that solicitors could speak out as people like me, members of the bar, cannot speak out we are forbidden from doing so. This is exceptionally important for freedom of speech."

Baroness Helena Kennedy, the barrister, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords, also spoke out, saying: "This is exactly the sort of thing a young lawyer does when they are describing what their client felt. To take it to the stage of contempt of court is excessive."

The Islamic Human Rights Commission, which has consultative status with United Nations, is now to refer the Anwar case to the UN. Its chairman, Massoud Shadjareh, said: "We are concerned that in a democracy the integrity of lawyers, who share the same ethnicity as those they defend, is being brought into question. This is a very sad day for Scottish justice."